Orcs Aren’t People: Denouncing Racism in the D&D Community

Recently, I had a comment removed from a major DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Facebook group. The comment was in respect of avoiding the appearance of racism by using non-human monsters as an adventure’s antagonists, rather than an evil human culture. The feedback I received from the admin was as follows:

There’s a lot of documentation out in the public sphere as to why orcs might not be the best solution and as a professional DM & public figure you are most likely familiar with it.

This wasn’t the end of it, though. The admin was so riled by my answer that, a few days later, the thread was locked and they muted my ability to post, claiming that the group was a place for DM advice and not ‘political discourse’. Furthermore, they cautioned that I should take the mute as my one and only warning.

Yep, that’s right: by encouraging a DM to use a non-human enemy to avoid the appearance of racism, I gave this admin a conniption fit so intense they threatened to ban me.

Whoever you were, I’d like to thank you for finally making me so fed up with this issue that I decided to write this op-ed on the matter.

Preamble

I don’t believe D&D orcs are a product of racism or an allegory for BIPOC individuals. They never have been in the entire history of D&D’s official adventures and supplements. I’m sure there are some scattered deplorables out there who, in the context of their own worlds, have twisted orcs—and any evil humanoid—into some wretched caricature of an ethnic groups against which they are prejudiced, but those people don’t work at Wizards of the Coast and that is not the position of the official game materials. This article is not an endorsement of people who do this, only a rejection that it’s a part of the game’s official rules.

This isn’t to say that Wizards of the Coast is perfect. Everyone knows that they’ve had their fair share of missteps when it comes to portraying human cultures. Just in Fifth Edition, the Vistani (Curse of Strahd) and the Chultans (Tomb of Annihilation) are obvious examples of very problematic caricatures of real-world cultures that should have been caught in sensitivity reading. Fortunately, the game designers listened to players who brought this up and took steps to remediate the problem, making adjustments to those adventures. This article is not about those missteps, it’s about orcs not being one of them.

It’s my hope that this article will dismantle the misguided and misinformed opinions that abound on the matter and make people realize that by pandering this ridiculous narrative they are actually doing more harm than good.

Terminology

Before we start, we need to be clear about some of the terms that are used in the books and which are repeated in this article.

Race

D&D’s useage of this term differs from its real-world meaning, and we need to settle the semantics.

In the real world, the word ‘race’ refers to the outmoded and flawed concept that people who share certain skin-deep similarities can be grouped into different cohorts with different inherent natures. Those who believe this nonsense generally, but not always, hold some kind of pseudo-scientific belief in the superiority of certain groups. Such ‘scientific racism’, long in vogue even among intellectuals and scientists beginning with the spread of eugenics theory in the 19th century, was thoroughly debunked around the time of World War II. This is not the meaning of the word ‘race’ in the context of this article, nor in D&D.

In D&D, ‘race’ means ‘species’, and has since the game was first released. Dwarves, elves, and the other fantasy races are as different to humans in D&D as chimpanzees and elephants are to humans in the real world. And just like many simians may learn to imitate human behaviour, they aren’t human and never will be. It isn’t racist to say that there are physical differences between gorillas and humans because we have completely different biologies. Likewise, it isn’t racist for fantasy races to be different—to have different physical and mental capacities, to have different metaphysical abilities, and to even have a completely different moral compass.

Canon

One of the most celebrated aspects about D&D is that anyone and everyone can make their own world with its own rules. One person’s fantasy world may consist of floating, continent-sized earthmotes suspended in an aetheric sea. Another person’s might very closely mirror medieval Europe—albeit with the addition of such things as dwarves and magic. No two people will make the same world, and someone picking up an existing world will inevitably have some things about it they’ll want to change.

With infinite iterations on infinite possibilities, it’s important that we narrow the discussion. This article isn’t concerned with the homebrewed settings where toxic people can create racist caricatures; rather, we’re talking now solely about the game’s primary settings—Greyhawk, Mystara, and the Forgotten Realms—which are hereafter referred to as ‘canon’. Again, you can have your own canon, but these settings are the basis for the books and so in discussing the books we have to limit the discussion to the proper context.

A History of Orcs

A discussion of orcs must needs begin with an examination of what they are. The following is a summary of the canon history of orcs, which has formed the basis for how orcs have been treated in official adventures and game supplements over the past 40+ years.

Orcs in the Monster Manual (1978) 

Ever since the very first edition of the game, orcs have been monsters, not people. Unlike elves and dwarves, who were created by good deities who value love and freedom and who gave their creations the capacity to embrace those things, orcs were created by the evil deity Gruumsh to be brutal, bloodthirsty footsoldiers in his war against the other gods. This legacy is directly mentioned in the half-orc racial entry in the Player’s Handbook, which states, “The one-eyed god Gruumsh created the orcs, and even those orcs who turn away from his worship can’t fully escape his influence”. What is his vision for the orcs? Well, as shared in the orc entry in the Monster Manual, it is that they would “take and destroy all that the other races would deny them”.

Possessed of limited intellect and supernaturally imbued with a powerful urge for violence and cruelty, orcs don’t exist to create, they exist to destroy. Aside from some isolated individuals able to buck their dark nature through various unreliable means, orcs are irredeemable, inveterate foes of any good-aligned party, no different than a demon or vampire. Gygax and the other designers of the game deliberately crafted orcs this way so that players could face groups of enemies without the issue of racism arising, as would be the case if groups of innately evil humans were an adventure’s antagonists.

Orcs in Fifth Edition D&D—still not human, and never will be 

It’s this aspect of orcs that most people who object to the supposed immorality of evil orcs are either forgetting or wilfully ignoring. Again, it’s fine if these folks decide in their world that orcs have a different history and opt to make sweeping changes to their nature following such alternative origins, but to hold canon orcs to the standards that arise from their own world and its rules is an untenable position.

To put this in perspective, it would be like someone accusing you of being racist for using evil, undead vampires because they re-wrote vampires to be a misunderstood and downtrodden branch of humanity. It’s nonsense. Their concepts are not binding on your world, and you aren’t racist for not abiding by them.

But… But Tolkien…

Invariably, any discussion I have with someone on this matter will, at this exact point, somehow come to orcs from Lord of the Rings and how they’re supposedly a racist contrivance. For whatever reason, people think that by claiming (erroneously, by the way) that the inspiration for D&D’s orcs was a product of bigotry, they can prove that anything born of that inspiration must also be racist. The author NK Jemisin phrased this as, “fruit of the poisoned vine”.

As a Tolkien scholar, this entire rhetoric particularly irks me. I earned the letters after my name in part through careful study and exegesis of Tolkien’s writings, which have always represented for me the greatest fiction ever written—not only because of Tolkien’s masterful use of symbolism and the richness of his characters, but also because he tells a quintessentially human story of love prevailing over hatred. To see people besmirch Tolkien’s legacy fills me with incredulity and sorrow. So, even though I strongly feel that this whole discussion really has nothing to do with D&D, I’ll take a moment to set the record straight here so that people stop trying to throw shade on Tolkien’s good name in a backhanded attempt to prove that D&D is racist. Obviously, this will not be the most comprehensive discussion on the matter; anyone interested in reading more on this subject such check out Dr. Dimitra Fimi’s exceptionally thorough deep dive into the matter.

The fact of the matter is that Tolkien wasn’t racist. Having witnessed the horrors of South African apartheid in his youth, Tolkien (pronounced tol-keen, by the way) was a life-long humanist who rejected and resented race-based theory. In his valedictory address to Oxford in 1959, he said, “I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones”, and in his Letter 45 he professed “burning” enmity for “that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler” for his unacceptable racism. Tolkien would be turning over in his grave to see some of the hateful vitriol people spew about him without ever having read a single word of his books, and if you have pandered such nonsense, shame on you.

Tolkien was so vehemently anti-racist that he actively strived to dismantle such concepts in his readers. To discourage comparisons between his fictional groups and real-world cultures, he adamantly disavowed any and all allegory in the book’s foreword and even deliberately signals to the reader that those humans who followed Sauron were likely just misguided, not evil:

“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would rather have stayed there in peace.”

In addition to this, the determining factor of one’s worth in Middle-earth never once boiled down to lineage, but rather to personal choices. Throughought the legendarium (the full range of published and unpublished works that tell the history of Middle-earth), one can find stories of just as many craven dwarves, elves, and humans as there are brave ones. Sometimes, these individuals are inspired to goodness or evil by a forebear, but by and large they find their courage or maliciousness within their own hearts. Many of the heroes in Lord of the Rings are not even mighty warriors, but small hobbits who represent ordinary people doing their best to help defeat evil.

Merry and Pippin, two of the most important heroes in the story (art by Ted Nasmith)

The only irredeemably evil beings in Middle-earth were the orcs. These creatures were once elves before, in a bygone age, the Dark Lord Morgoth (a semi-divine being whom Sauron served in the First Age) abducted them and twisted their minds and bodies using foul magic, erasing all goodness within them so that they could become unquestioning servants and soldiers. In fact, orcs in Middle-earth are so deeply bound to the will of a Dark Lord that, without it, their organization dissolves and their morale breaks. This wasn’t as disastrous for them after Morgoth was defeated because Sauron took over the Dark Lord’s mantle. Likewise, after Sauron’s first defeat, much of his power was still in the One Ring, driving orcs to continue fighting the Free Peoples for the next 3,000 years. It was only when the Ring was finally unmade and Sauron’s power utterly broken at the end of Lord of the Rings that the orcs were utterly scattered:

[T]he creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope.

Any modern reader who actually reads Lord of the Rings can clearly see that Tolkien’s orcs are not an expression of the author’s hatred of non-European cultures; they are essentially living zombies given purpose and direction through divine will. So yes, there is a conceptual connection between them and D&D’s orcs, but it isn’t any kind of shared allegory. Tolkien’s orcs were never meant to be anything other than orcs, no matter how much someone tries to impose some twisted narrative on them, and D&D’s orcs inherited no racism from them.

‘Anti-BIPOC’ Stereotypes

One especially complex facet of this issue is how the entire discussion is based on Eurocentric biases. This is especially evident when people use the example of the adjective ‘savage’ in the descriptions of orcs, which they argue is somehow a specific slur against Black and Indigenous American cultures and therefore an indication that orcs are meant as a caricature of those groups.

This is, of course, a fundamentally flawed line of reasoning that reveals the limited worldview of the claimant. Not only is ‘savage’ (from the Old French sauvage, c. 1300) etymologically unrelated to any cultural group, its usage as an antonym for words such as ‘civilized’ and ‘compassionate’ mimics its effective translations in languages around the world, some of which have even been used as descriptors for people of European descent (chicken nanban is a Chinese dish that imitates European cuisine; the name literally means ‘barbarian chicken’). Yes, racist settlers and slavekeepers in Europe and North America used words like this to describe BIPOC folks, but such bigotry has never been the exclusive provision or privilege of Europeans, and BIPOC folks are by no means the only groups to have ever been so described.

Fundamentally, the argument that these stereotypes ‘belong to’ certain ethnic groups only serves to tacitly endorse their validity. Every single culture across human history has insulted the civilization of their enemies; they are universal tropes that are equally wrong across all applications. In D&D, they find use being lumped into monstrous races—orcs, goblins, lizardfolk, etc.—so that they can be the antagonists in whatever conflict frames an adventure’s background without needing some kind of narrative reason for being the villains. Unlike humans, they don’t need a reason to raid and pillage—it isn’t some cultural quirk, it’s what they were created to do. Because orcs and the like aren’t real, they can be these innately evil monsters that do not exist in our world.

Again, you can choose to change this in your campaign. You can give orcs human motivations, histories, and cultural traditions that other races simply don’t understand, leading to conflict. But that’s not what orcs have in the official D&D rules, and if you give them those traits then you are responsible for addressing the social implications of a free-thinking, evil race. You can’t hold Wizards of the Coast accountable for not providing something made necessary by your own choices.

History Repeating Itself

This isn’t the first time D&D has been accused of being racist. The first accusations actually go back decades to the ’80s, when conservative Christian parents in the grip of the Satanic Panic sought to contrive reasons why they should throw out their childrens’ game materials and replace them with the Bible. These superstitious lunatics promulgated so much ignorant nonsense, including that D&D promoted violence against minorities, that 60 Minutes produced a documentary segment about the claims, and academic journals began publishing papers on the phenomenon.

DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS: A wholesome hobby—or  *spins wheel* literally just racism?

As modern audiences might expect, many of these papers demonstrated that D&D actually improved moral development, rather than encouraged dysfunctional behaviour. In other words, whilst conservative aspects of society were striking down the Equal Rights Amendment Act, launching a war on drugs, and fighting to end affirmative action, progressive researchers were compiling empirical evidence that D&D was producing teenagers with healthy morality.

So what’s changed since the ’80s? Only the political leaning of the people casting these aspersions. Instead of conservative pearl-clutchers trying to prove their superior morality by denouncing a popular pasttime, it’s so-called ‘progressives’ who are just as right-wing in their antics. The tools are the exact same: they drop scare-terms (‘micro-aggressions’ and ‘Satanic’); they contrive wildly racist interpretations which they then project onto the players; and they accuse those who disagree with them of being sympathetic to the nonsensical, imagined agenda through such methods as gaslighting and kafkatrapping. “If you don’t agree with me, you’re racist” is a line that should be said by someone who espouses equal access to human rights, not someone who is blatantly misinterpreting a fictional race as a harmful stereotype.

And this brings me to my final point.

The Whole Thing Is Backfiring

The most maddening—and sadly predictable—aspect of this entire debate is that people are actually reinforcing very harmful narratives in their attempts to be more inclusive.

The fact of the matter is that nobody thought orcs were supposed to represent certain cultures until someone drew the most superficial of connections and began shouting about it, drawing a bunch of closet racists/would-be do-gooders to join the chorus until it became this terrible scourge of the community. Nobody wants to be accused of being racist, so the narrative isn’t being challenged anymore and orcs are becoming the very thing they were included in the game to prevent: a metaphor for certain ethnic groups that are cast in the role of the villain. And with an increasing number of publications like Medium and Comicbook chasing clicks by writing puff pieces about this deeply troubling narrative, the concept is becoming more and more deeply entrenched in the mind of the community.

Extra Credit (YouTube) helping exactly nobody

Imagine that you just joined a gaming community and you’re immediately told, “Hey, you’re obviously one of these evil, uncivilized monsters”. No matter how much those monsters are then ‘toned down’ to not offend you as much, the fact remains that it is a horribly offensive caricature invented by those players who don’t see you as human. Chances are, you’re not going to feel welcome in the community after this, and you’ll write off the entire hobby as being full of racists because of a few prejudiced individuals.

What To Do?

The solution to this problem is not to normalize the narrative, but denounce it. Stop making orcs more palatable versions of a fundamentally racist caricature and accept that orcs were never and will never be D&D’s version of these cultures. Orcs are monsters, not people, and no amount of artistic licence will fix the problems that arise when they’re treated otherwise. This kind of narrative simply doesn’t belong in the D&D community—at least, not as the inclusive and accepting space I’ve known it to be for the past 20 years.

Other things you can do depend on who you are.

Are You A Black, Indigenous, or Person of Colour (BIPOC) Individual?

  • Be vocal about how upset it makes you that certain people automatically associate you and your community/culture with orcs. Ask that they kindly stop sharing this harmful perspective.
  • Feel free to continue to play whatever race you choose, since they’re all fictional groups of creatures that you and the DM can make whatever you want.

Are You A Non-BIPOC D&D Player?

  • Please refrain from acting like orcs are supposed to represent BIPOC individuals and ask your friends to do the same. (This means not trying to make more palatable caricatures of BIPOC people as orcs; reject the entire premise instead.)
  • Don’t make orc characters that are meant as racist caricatures of certain groups. (You probably weren’t doing this already, I know, but the request still stands.)
  • Don’t play in games where the DM uses monsters as racist caricatures of certain groups. (I’ve not personally encountered this either, but I’m sure it’s happened somewhere.)
  • If you’re a DM, read this excellent article by James Haeck about why orcs are a fantastic enemy to include in your campaign. (Also, be willing to work with BIPOC players if they would like to incorporate human groups into your campaign that better reflect non-European tropes.)

Are You Jeremy Crawford?

I appreciate you making it this far.

  • Continue to defend the hobby as an inclusive space where racism isn’t tolerated. Make it clear that this entire discussion is harmful to the community and denounce those racist people who are projecting their bigoted perspectives onto everyone else.
  • Clarify the difference between D&D’s concept of race and the defunct anthropological concept of race so as to ensure everyone is aware that the term is used in the context of D&D’s 40-year legacy and not as tacit endorsement of pseudo-scientific fallacies.
  • Try to incorporate more BIPOC stories into D&D’s human mythology to reinforce the connection between the D&D race and all real-world human cultures. There are many talented BIPOC creators you could hire to bring their cultural perspectives to the worldbuilding and storymaking process.
  • Re-implement the link between alignment and race and go back to including ability score increases under racial traits, reflecting that different species possess different biologies and de-normalizing the stigma that has come to surround such matters through equal parts honest confusion and deliberate misinterpretation by members of the community.

Conclusion

Returning back to the comment from the Facebook group admin, yes, I am aware of the ‘documentation’ in the public sphere about orcs—and I reject it. It’s nothing but problematic nonsense that does far more harm than good. The entire argument is based on a flawed narrative that needs to be denounced, not encouraged.

I refuse to be lectured to about racism by someone who is projecting their own blatant racism on the rest of the world. I exhort you to stop being so racist as to think that human ethnicities and cultures resemble monsters and stop forcing this problematic opinion on others. You are causing deep harm to the community; it’s your comments that should be banned, not mine. Shame on you.


Taylor Reisdorf is an LGBT+ game designer and dungeon master who has played D&D for 20 years. He is a fourth-generation settler living on Treaty 1 territory in Canada, the ancestral and traditional homeland of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples. He supports Black Lives Matter, denounces Gamergate, and runs a diverse gaming table open to all people irrespective of creed, ethnic origin, sex, or orientation. 

32 thoughts on “Orcs Aren’t People: Denouncing Racism in the D&D Community”

  1. Thank you so much for saying what I have been thinking in such an elegant manner. D&D is a fantasy NOT reality. If you see this fantasy as a reflection of you reality, it is you who has the problem, not D&D.

  2. It’s important to mention in your discussion of Tolkien’s influence on D&D that Gygax and the early developers of D&D were adamant that they were not trying to incorporate the Tolkien canon into the game. Gygax was always clear that Tolkien did not influence D&D, whereas he always said Conan, John Carter, and Vance were the direct inspiration for D&D fantasy elements.

  3. “Orcs aren’t people! They’re as different from humans as elephants or chimpanzees!”

    Ah, yes. Which explains all those half-people humelephants and chimphumans that we get.

    1. Hi there, and thank you for your comment!

      I’m afraid I’m a little confused about what point you’re trying to make. If you’re trying to imply that the ability to beget people makes you a person, I’m afraid your logic breaks down when it comes to cambions (half-fiends), dhampyrs (half-vampires), and half-dragons (half… well, you get it).

      Monsters beget people all the time in fantasy. It doesn’t make them not-monsters.

      Best,
      the Archmage

    2. Also you may want to seprate the real from the un-real. How can you be hateful to an imagined thing that is not human because it is not anything.

  4. I agree! However, I think there’s an important caveat here. If you frame this in the perspective of early human history, elves, dwarves, halflings, and orcs are comparative with other hominids like neanderthals and homo erectus.
    The question to me is: *why* does a particular story need a species of *inherently* destructive and bloodthirsty humanoids? The narrative purpose of these creatures is for the players to have an obstacle and provide easy justification for violence. This is a certain kind of fun, of course, and zombies exist, but I think the mindset is dangerous when put on a living, breathing creature that is, presumably, part of a living ecosystem.
    I definitely agree that we play our “races” too much like humans. Years of familiarity with the elves, dwarves, orcs, and halflings have forced us to humanize them to a degree beyond their initial imagining. We do so, because it’s impossible to think like an alien, so we use human corollaries instead. This *normalizes* races and sacrifices the awe we should feel by seeing or playing them.
    But if a story uses orcs as written, their teleological purpose for existence is justified only by the presence of their moral opposite to fight them (sometimes elves, but really the heroes for the sake of narrative). That’s a very different system of morality to play out than in our own, and perhaps hard to play out.
    I ultimately don’t find that kind of morality play is worth playing out, so I give goblins and orcs (as bad guys) a little distance in my campaigns. However, it is possible for others to do it right. I just think that the movement away from them isn’t just about racism, but about the justification for violence against an entire species.

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for the comment!

      You raise a number of great issues that I really wish I could have fit into the article. Unfortunately, it was already 3,000 words and the longer I made it, the more easily people could take pieces out of context and twist them into sentiments that are the exact opposite of my own.

      It is in our nature as humans to project ourselves into the world around us. Personifications, anthropomorphisms… we humanize what we see because it helps us to understand it. And we are absolutely seeing that happen with orcs. They’ve come a long way from the porcine-faced AD&D creatures to where they are now, with slightly more human-like appearances. On top of that, franchises like World of Warcraft have made orcs playable, adding a ‘human-like’ orc to our cultural gestalt.

      The biggest thing I wanted to achieve with this article is to remind D&D players that D&D orcs—the ones described in the rulebooks—are not these misunderstood, honourable warriors from other franchises. D&D orcs are monsters. Players can change what orcs are in their world, make them like they are in World of Warcraft or Eberron, but that doesn’t retroactively make the basic orcs people and it doesn’t automatically make them racist caricatures. Players need to stop projecting themselves onto orcs because it’s always going to be a dark mirror.

      If we can stop that, this entire discussion will be revealed to have been based on a fallacy.

      Best,
      the Archmage

  5. I agree with most of this article, but I’m dismayed over the suggestion (maybe I misunderstood) that it’s wrong to make good orcs and goblins. There is actually a lot of story potential for a good orc who is in a LOTR or D&D inspired world where orcs are hated. Full disclosure, I’m writing a book about a kind-hearted half goblin girl named Marcilla. She definitely IS a person. Do you consider that a bad thing?

    1. Hi there, and thanks for your comment!

      I’m concerned that you might have missed the part about how I framed this discussion within the context of official D&D (and, to an extent, LOTR) canon, and my intention was to clarify common misinterpretations of that content. There’s nothing wrong at all with making a story with good orcs and goblins. Of course you can write your world (or your version of a D&D world) to suit your tastes, and I agree that there are compelling stories that could come out of a world where orcs are merely misunderstood.

      I’m not opposed to good orcs; I’m opposed to people claiming evil, brutish monsters are a racist caricature because they automatically leap to associating them with BIPOC folks. People need to own their own racism, not project it onto others.

      Best of luck with your book!
      the Archmage

      1. Hey, I wrote a comment below before I saw this reply you gave to J.Neira’s comment, so I thought I’d make a tiny addendum to my comment as I can’t edit it (or I can but I didn’t notice the relevant button 😛 )

        You put it really clearly here saying:

        “I’m not opposed to good orcs; I’m opposed to people claiming evil, brutish monsters are a racist caricature because they automatically leap to associating them with BIPOC folks. People need to own their own racism, not project it onto others.”

        And I completely agree with that, but I would like to point that evil, brutish monsters don’t exist in nature, in the world as we know it. And a fantasy world should have a basis in how we perceive our world. Like it’s just like ours, but in the medieval ages and there’s magic and here are the rules about how magic works…

        There’s a need for such monsters to exist in a dungeon crawler, so that you know that we’re the good guys and these are the bad guys so it’s alright if we kill them because they’re evil, but as the game evolves to building worlds and cultures, more realistic villains are possible to create and such a need for a differentiation between good and evil atrophies. As another example: anyone can be a murderhobo in a world where deities make species good or evil – I mean insert_evil_god could just have some fun with a player’s mind for a while. The weren’t evil, satan(_like_deity) made them do it.

        Also, just because Gygax made our favourite game doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have been a bit racist himself – I’m not saying that he was, I don’t know anything about the guy’s life, but the whole idea of a god creating some species to be evil is a bit suggestive of one’s way of thinking – which is not unexpected for a person growing up in a place where tv/radio/newspapers are full of “black man killed/stole/whatever” but when a white man would do a crime they’d have a title like “man killed/stole/whatever” so a person’s mind can fill the gaps.

        I mean, I agree with your paragraph that I quoted above, I just believe that there’s too much discussion between those 2 sides, and not enough discussion in why such brutish monsters should exist in a natural way. A moral compass should evolve through social interaction and not be inherited, is what I’m saying and I feel like this way of thinking is harmful in the long run.

        Sorry for hijacking the comment, but I seeing that made me want to elaborate!

        1. Hi Mitsos,

          Thanks for your comment!

          As was the case with David’s comment above, there are good points raised here, and ones that I wanted to talk about but ran out of room, so I appreciate you bringing them up here.

          There are two main points you’re making here: (1) evil entities don’t exist in nature, and (2) the game isn’t just a dungeon crawler.

          To the first point, I’d encourage you to remember that we’re not talking about the world (Earth) as we know it, we’re talking about Greyhawk, Faerûn, and other fantasy worlds with dragons, demons, and other evil foes. Fiction relies on suspension of disbelief, and for whatever reason—whether they’re just too racist, they lack imagination, they just don’t grasp the difference between fantasy and reality, or they just don’t want to because they’d rather get upset—some people are having a hard time accepting this disbelief. At the end of the day, that’s on them to resolve.

          To the second point, that’s actually exactly what D&D is. Everything in the game—the roleplaying, the exploration… it’s all context for the fundamental basis of the game, which is to fight the bad guys. That’s always been the basic paradigm. It’s why the most iconic monsters in the game—vampires, liches, and dragons—are specifically designed as foils for a typical, good-aligned party—it draws the party into conflict with them and even lets them roleplay decisions that have them either follow the same path taken by the villain, or take the more noble route.

          How do orcs fit into this? Well, the BBEG needs servants, and we’ve seen in publications like Curse of Strahd what terrible, racist things result when such enemies have evil human servitors. So instead, we have non-human servants for such enemies—lizardfolk, kobolds, minor fiends, goblins… the list goes on. This is what orcs are in the basic version of the game—not some awful commentary on ethnic minorities, not a caricature of any group designed to reinforce negative stereotypes in the player base. They’re monsters that are there because they compelled to serve evil. That’s the entire point of their existence.

          You can change that teleological narrative in your campaign. Maybe you want them to be a branch of some shared humanoid family with dwarves, elves, etc. that came about by evolution. That seems to be what many people are doing, and I agree with them when they change their orcs to not be innately evil. But, remember, that isn’t what the rulebooks assume orcs to be. The Monster Manual orcs were created exactly the way they are now by an evil deity because the game needs non-human enemies for the party to face, ideally ones that have no control over their violent, brutal nature so that (1) they allow the party to be the good heroes (whatever the good heroes look like visually) and (2) the party doesn’t have to wring their hands if they’re forced to kill an orc.

          Those orcs aren’t people, they’re monsters, and the crowd that retroactively applies their own narrative onto those orcs and then immediately leaps to the conclusion that orcs must represent BIPOC folks are clearly operating on deep-seated bigotry that I utterly reject, and I exhort everyone else to reject as well.

          Best,
          the Archmage

      2. Thank you for wishing my book about Marcilla good luck. And now I see what you’re saying and I agree, Orcs and Goblins were not meant as a racist caricature of humans. I agree with that completely.
        One thing that I believe we might disagree on is whether a monster can actually truly be evil. You mention how Orcs can’t be good according to the original Monster Manual. In that case, I would argue they are not to blame for their supposed evil actions, and are the equivalent of talking animals. Since I do not believe it is possible to be evil without first having free will, I would have to conclude that any monster who is inherently “evil” is NOT evil. They’re just acting on instinct. In fact, a sentient being who is unable to be good is one of the greatest tragedies ever.
        If an orc had free will and chose to be evil, on the other hand, that truly is a monster. And a human who chose to be evil is also a monster.
        “Inherently evil” monsters are just robots then, or rabid animals, and not true villains.
        But I agree that they are not meant to represent anyone.

        1. Hi J. Neira!

          First of all I have to say that you really raised a few intriguing points, so I feel compelled to say something to this. 🙂 Secondly I have to clarify whether I understood your position correctly, so I will now try to interpret your position, state it and then react to it so in case I understood you wrong, this would immediately be clear. ^^

          Your saying that:

          (1) any being who hasn’t willingly decided to be of a certain alignment (for this purpose we just choose “Chaotic Evil” because it’s the alignment given in canon for the creatures discussed in this article, namely Orcs), or rather has willingly acted in a way according to what we, the consensus of a community, associate with those alignments, cannot really be considered having that certain alignment.

          (2) for a villain to be considered a true villain they have to be considered evil according to the statement made in (1).

          First of all I’d like to clarify that most of my take on this comes from the necessity of D&D to have its [Alignment System] since it also has gameplay implications and not just pure flavor. Secondly I wanna say that, in my humble opinion, logically approaching this topic, alignment should not be something a creature is born having. A newborn does lack the needed capacity to make meaningful decisions for itself; it has to learn these things first and make up its mind about the world to do that. Yet we’re talking about fantasy worlds here and not real life. And fantasy worlds, especially game worlds need special rules; simplified rules even, so that one can play the game. The complexity of real life has nothing to do here.

          On (2):
          First of all I’d argue that there are different types of villains, and not every one has to be of the “Mastermind” type. Which would be the one who orchestrates in the background and most certainly makes all his decisions willingly. They, assuming they’re at the top of the chain, are as close to their evil alignment as it gets. But then there’s also other villains like “The Beast”, “The Corrupted”, “The Disturbed”, “The Machine”… Many a villain acts the way they do because someone or something else made them. Now I also share a taste for the sentiment that a Villain is one with comprehensible motives; one that is what they are by choice. Yet there are very good examples for Villains that just came to be by circumstances not up to their choice. Take SkyNet. It was created for a purpose, it had a clear programming and a clear agenda: guide unmanned military vessels to unparalleled precision against a defined threat. When mankind turned against SkyNet, mankind filled that definition of threat. Thus an ultimate and Chaotic Evil villain was born.

          And here we go to (1):
          In some cases it’s arguably not their own choice anymore, yet their actions define them as being evil. It’s that very fact: if someone commits evil acts, the world perceives them as that: evil. For the perceived alignment it doesn’t matter what’s the driving force behind it. And here I come to my next point. Your normal everyday adversary, the brute that just tries to get by with acting according to what they believe their superiors expect of them, like keeping anyone unknown by any means off the villains turf. Or the grunt in the “Dark Lords” army that’s attacking your city. They’re not necessarily villains of their own – yet they can be considered evil according to their acts. “Kill anyone who sets foot on this land”. The mindless automaton that a Skeleton is, who follows this order to the letter, is evil because it acts in evil ways to accommodate that order even though it has no free will. The human/orc/elf/[any creature that is not mindless] who follows this command willingly is evil just the same. They’re not more evil than the Skeleton just because they had free will to guide their actions. I as a villain, do not sit in my chamber thinking “what can I do to be as evil as possible”, I most likely am thinking “what can I do to get what I want” and if my answer to that is “whatever it takes, no matter who has to suffer however much for it” then the actions I’ll take to get it will most likely be perceived as pretty evil by the world around me. That being said, I realize that it can be quite confusing in the D&D or basically any RPG’s context that features alignments. Many a player thinks: oh I have this certain alignment, I HAVE to act accordingly to it. And it’s very easy to fall for that sentiment. You think “I have to roleplay according to what my character was designed to be”. But the truth is, alignment doesn’t imply your actions, it’s actually the other way around. If it were like that, you’d be very constrained in your actions as a player. That’s why you can change alignment during a game. That’s how Paladins fall…

          I see where you’re coming from, and I also know that many people share your romanticized view of alignment, but in the sense of an RPG like D&D, which has it as a core game mechanic for many of its features, every creature has to have one so it’s always clear for the players how to handle a certain situation(mainly combat). And what would you give this Skeleton that just kills everyone who comes by without second guessing(because it can’t)? Where does alignment start before free will comes into play? At [True Neutral]? But then again a [True Neutral] Alignment also requires you to act according to what the world perceives as [True Neutral] behavior; to willingly uphold a balance between all things, which clearly the Skeleton doesn’t do. The creature the Skeleton was created from might even have been of a Good alignment in their previous life; yet in their new existence their actions can only be described as evil.

          Oh and by the way the entry for a creatures’ alignment in the MM used to qualify the alignment with a likeliness in the 3.5e. Orcs for instance had an alignment entry of: Often Chaotic Evil, so when creating an Orc it was the DM’s decision whether to actually give it that alignment or another. Only a very select few creatures, or rather a certain group of creatures if you will, had the “always” qualifier. Those were mostly sentient creatures of low intelligence (INT 2) like plants and animals or beasts who were always true neutral because all they did was taking what they needed to survive and nothing more; which is innately upholding the balance. Some had their alignment tied to the nature of their existence, like shadows, who innately hated life and light and had to be always chaotic evil to serve as exactly that kind of enemy. The 5e MM features the “unaligned” alignment and never qualifies an alignment; it’s always fixed. Which is just one of the many issues I have with the 5e. How can anyone be unaligned – how can the world have absolutely no opinion on what a creatures actions are.

          I hope I wasn’t too jumpy in my thought and argumentation process. I tend to do that sometimes. 🙂

          Conclusion:
          Aligment is defined by your acts not by your decision what you want it to be. In a world of fantasy and magic there can be creatures that are created by higher powers with a certain agenda and thus certain alignment without the individual creature having a choice. Some creatures that qualify can be made to change their alignment by outside forces, some that don’t qualify can’t.

          1. The whole conversation surrounding Evil/Good has been going on since the start of the game. There has not been, nor ever will be, a definite conclusion to that discussion. It is far better to say that orcs, like vampires, are dedicated foes of other races and will do anything to “win”. This way you get away from relativistic view of evil/good.

            An orc is considered a direct and immediate threat to any player character that encounters one. There is no ambiguity about that. The D&D alignment system basically defines “evil” as something that is purposefully out to harm the PCs, not as a modern ethical discussion on evil.

            Hence you get chimera with a Chaotic Evil alignment even though it is semi-intelligent — because unlike regular animals and other monsters (i.e. bulette), the chimera will immediately attack the PCs and go out of their way to be a threat to the PCs.

  6. While I do, in many parts, agree with what you’re saying, and while I don’t agree with the idea of stripping various game races off the features that differentiate them because they might allow ground for racism, I do have something to say that I feel goes unnoticed on most such discussions.

    The idea that orcs are made by Gruumsh is something that’s campaign-related. Gruumsh is not a universal deity, d&d has evolved beyond Greyhawk/Faerun and should be treated as a game rules for any kind of setting, and thus no historical facts should appear in any of the races’ descriptions. The game should instead provide a system to be able to create balanced races and give the races given as an example of such a system for a specific fantasy world – the tasha’s addition was a good one, but only by re-writing the PHB completely will that be possible. The same applies to other similar features like backgrounds but at least they had already made sure to allow for a custom background system that borrows from others.
    And while in world A an orc is originally made by Gruumsh and it’s mind might be controlled by that deity to be “evil” in world B an orc is just a species of humanoid that grew up in a city and while they might be more muscular than an average humanoid of another race, they could have exactly the same mental capacity – or I don’t know, their brain cavities could be smaller or they are a younger species and could have a smaller brain so less mental capacity or whatnot, but the point is, if you are to give an example you should give that example and explain why you chose to make that species in the specific fantasy setting as it is.

    And, honestly, the idea that a god created a race/species with different mental capabilities has been used by racists in our world’s history – black people have been called animals in the past (and in the present, sometimes, I’m afraid) and the reasoning was that god made them that way. I think that moving away from that way of thinking is a good idea, in general. I don’t really agree with how the discussion is made on that matter, but usually I’m too busy elsewhere to take much part in such a discussion (unlike this current post, which is an exception)

  7. Came across this blog post and I must say “Kudos!”

    About Alignment, people forget that Good/Evil and Law/Chaos aren’t abstract, subjective concepts in D&D like they are in the real world. They are Fundamental Forces of the Multiverse capable of being measured, studied and quantified, just as Electromagnetism and Gravity are in the real world.

    Orks being Evil and the creations of the god Gruumsh in D&D isn’t a subjective “cultural difference”. Its a fundamental part of their DNA. Like you said, Orks are the foot soldiers in Gruumsh’s wars. They’re just a step below Angels/Demons in terms of power, being biologically created though their ultimate origin was supernatural (the blood spilled from Gruumsh’s battle with Correllon Larethian).

    As for Orks as Tolkien envisioned them (taken partly from the single mention of Orcneas from Beowulf, but also the Roman god of the Underworld, Orcus) weren’t actually Irreedeemably Evil, for nothing could be in Middle Earth (Tolkien, being a devout Catholic struggled with that, which is understandable) since nothing could be Evil in its beginning, not even Melkor, as it had its ultimate genesis in the will of Eru.

    The other race that gets the pearl clutching treatment is the Drow. What’s infuriating is that people claiming the Drow were inherently Evil apparently NEVER actually read what Gygax wrote about them, namely their culture as presented in D3: Vault of the Drow. It clearly has a random encounter possible with a group of Drow youths known as Rakes. Some of these groups will be composed of Drow, half-Elven Drow (ie – Half Human) and Half-Drow/Surface Elf types and they will be the most likely to reject the culture around them with they view as degenerate and depraved. Drow, unlike Orks, are actually Evil by cultural choice. Now, to be sure, Rakes of this kind represent a tiny fraction of Drow culture, but they are there.

    Furthermore, their inky black skin (literally a color not possible in human melanin) DIDN’T come from their being Evil but as an adaptation to their “Dark Fairy Underworld with its strange radiations”. The same people that will often scream and carry on about “its not based on anything remotely like our history with swords and armor” in one breath but then go on about “Its obviously fantasy with dragons and demons and stuff” demand that “Drow should have pale skin from living underground cause that’s how it works in the real world!” Just as Orks are not analagous for any real world ethnic peoples, the Drow aren’t either. Neither from their mythological roots (the Norse Svartalfar and the Scottish Trow) nor from how they were actually presented/written by Gygax.

  8. That is the problem, Brooklyn. It is actually impossible for anyone to be inherently evil or good with no choice – because evil, like good, requires free will to truly qualify as good or evil. Saying that someone is inherently evil or good is like saying that the water was dry, or that a person is freezing hot. It’s a contradiction. In short, “evil” orcs that have no choice in the matter are not evil, but are instead like lions or sharks. They can’t help it.
    Now, I don’t have any problem with having non-sentient monsters as enemies in a story. The problem is when you try to have it both ways, treating your monsters like they were people (capable of speech and society) while denying them their free will – a problematic contradiction at best, and outright bigotry at worst.

    A good storyteller does not need the lazy and immoral trope of inherently evil or good races. If you want to have evil orcs, great. But it should be clear that they chose to be evil, and that there are good orcs in this world. After all, isn’t it much more satisfying to slay a monster who is truly evil, rather one who had no choice?

    1. Hi Neira,

      You’re forgetting one important aspect of D&D: it’s not real, it’s fantasy.

      In the real world, yes, people have free will and can make a moral choice based on the situation and their own philosophy. In D&D, good and evil are real forces that actually exist beyond mere, subjective interpretation. Some creatures (e.g. humans) are only ever evil by choice, and other creatures (e.g. orcs) are evil by nature.

      You don’t have a problem with fiends (demons, devils) being evil, do you? They’re created from evil, their will is bent on evil, and any good they do is completely out of self interest rather than some kind of altruism. It’s the same thing with orcs.

      You can choose to make your orcs different, but the ones in the Monster Manual follow this premise. Humanizing them is only going to cause problems, and those problems are entirely on the person who is trying to make orcs into people instead of monsters.

      Best,
      the Archmage

      1. Hello Archmage. To answer the points you made:

        1. I do not believe that good & evil are abstract or subjective terms in our world. I believe they are absolute truths.

        2. Saying “it’s fantasy” does not change my mind, because I believe good fantasy should reflect reality when it comes to how people behave and morality especially.

        3. I do indeed have a problem with demons not having a choice. My standards are consistent, not just for orcs and goblins. If a demon was originally an angel and chose to be evil (like in Christianity) then that’s fine, but I believe they should have a choice.

        4. By giving orcs the ability to speak and understand, you’re already humanizing them. So that is why they should have free will. Otherwise, it would be better if they were just rabid animals.

      2. Sorry to double post, but something else I have to add is that orcs being given free will in D&D is not exactly a new development. Half-Orcs have been a playable race for ages, and R.A. Salvatore’s The Orc King (published in 2007) is all about humanizing orcs. Drizzt even saves an innocent orc family from racist elves in the prologue.

        I find villains way more interesting when I know they chose to be evil, rather than they were cursed to be evil at birth.

        Even Tolkien did not create orcs that were irredeemably evil. He wrote in a letter that God would never have created something irredeemably evil. One of the many reasons I love Tolkien. 🙂

        1. Being innately evil and being capable of free will aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

          In Sunday school as a child, I was taught that humans are innately evil. According to Catholic belief, we were tainted as an entire species by Eve’s disobedience, and our nature changed from good to evil.

          Now, personally I don’t agree that view of humanity is accurate, but that’s irrelevant. My point is that the people who told me that were emphatically *not* saying “our nature is evil so we have no choice but to be evil”. They were saying “our nature is evil so we must fight our innate inclinations in order to be good”.

          What if we portrayed innately evil D&D races the way Catholics portray humanity?

  9. First, thanks for the Article! Next, there’s a lot of common sense here and simple truths that people over-think. Monsters are not People OR Animals. They are entirely fictional beings that don’t have to follow ANY real world logic. You can have a monster be evil and have free will, if that doesn’t make sense. That’s fine, it doesn’t have to! You can have water be dry, or be freezing-hot(Frostfire bolt?) I know people hate the phrase, but it’s the truth. “It’s Fantasy!”
    Besides, you can always homebrew the game however you want. Just don’t try and force your perspective on others outside of your game as some sort of unbreakable paradox in a world where you can do anything. (Ex: Free will can’t be inherently evil!)

    1. Khrackan, no one is “forcing” anyone to do anything. It is disingenuous to say that criticism is the same as forcing you to play a certain way. I know you were referring to me, since you lifted direct quotes from my posts on this article. If YOU are able to enjoy stories where free will is not required to be evil, fine. I do not and will never like those stories. I will always critique them when the subject comes up, just as surely you would critique stories that you found offensive.

  10. To be honest, I see no problem with fictional races having a culture similar to the real one. I see the problem in doing it correctly. If these are separate tropes, it is your problem to see someone’s culture in it (Not only the Vikings sailed on boats to raid coasts). If it is a deeper reference it may be respectful and not an attempted insult.

    For me, it’s much weirder that each race in the DND has its own separate culture, while they seem to all live together. At the same time, racial cultural stereotypes are spelled out much more than national ones. Because of what races begin to resemble castes. Dwarves blacksmiths, elves artists, etc.

    Long story short, firstly try not to bother with races in the dnd, it’s just a game. Secondly, if you bother, first think about the nature of the division into races, whether these are different nations and cultures, or just people with ears or beards. If first one go on and make your own mongolian orks (I hope they want to create pax mongolica and yuan, not just kill peoples), if second one then don’t make one culture per race, be creative, make more “nations” with more divercity races.

    Also. Orks more then just monsters, them have their own language and skills to create weapons and armours. Little bit different to Oozes or giant wolfs. Tbh I feel like “orks are monsters” is more correct in dark fantasy or more socio-historical accurate games with more xenophobia in society. If you hope to survive until next day in world full with horrible monsters, you make no difference between things that want to kill you. You know, silwer for monsters, steel too.

    1. “For me, it’s much weirder that each race in the DND has its own separate culture, while they seem to all live together.”

      This is a modernism. Early D&D (before the mid-80s, perhaps?) had the vast majority of demihumans living in separate settlements or countries, and being a distinct minority in other lands.

      e.g. on the large scale, in Greyhawk, Furyondy has human population 350k, demihumans “some”. Veluna has human population 250k, 10k high elves, 7k gnomes. Verbobonc has 30k humans, 4k gnomes, 2.5k sylvan elves. The elven kingdom of Celene has human population 15k, 17k elves, 3.5k gnomes, some halflings; the elven duchy of Ulek has 15k humans, 16k elves, and (unnumbered) gnomes.

      On the small scale, the villages of Hommlet and Nulb (T1) appear to be 100% human’ Restenford (L1), population 315, lists 4 half-elves, 4 elves, and 2 dwarves in the key.

  11. In a fantasy world where real world logic need not be applied you can ofcourse have inherintley evil races. It would be a harrowing experience to try to parley with a creature that wants to slaughter and pillage your entire town, and force themselves upon the women to create half-orc spawns as mocking symbols of their conquest, now that’s evil!

  12. I think people use fantasy to make the world less scary or to feel more in control of it, and there are two ways they use fantasy to accomplish that goal:

    1) Create irredeemable evil and have the forces of good destroy it
    2) Turn evil things good

    Tolkien was about #1, but in the Rankin and Bass cartoons we saw the hobbits hallucinate about waving cheerfully to an orc in a flowery meadow after the war is over, which is #2.

    Neither is better or more right. But Basic D&D and AD&D were firmly about #1. Later editions, trying (successfully) to appeal to a broader player base, trended toward #2. I have been playing since the Basic days, and when I first saw playable orcs and goblins etc. in later editions I wondered what possible psychopath would want to play one. We rarely even played elves and dwarves due to level restrictions, so clearly Gygax would never have approved of playing an orc!

    But after playing 5e for a while I understand it’s not like that. It’s about humanizing the enemy, figuring out what makes them tick, and therfore making them less scary. As soon as that started to happened, the portrayal of orcs in D&D was opened to accusations of racism by younger generations who didn’t play back in the day, when killing an orc was no different than shooting a space invader.

    But the trend in pop culture for decades has been to humanize everything. Vampires, werewolves, even zombies!

    Now, I’m not sure about the Drow. They have always seemed kind of sketchy to me, as a dark-skinned, savagely evil race of a pale-skinned good species. They were not created by an evil god to destroy the world, they have been duped by a demon for thousands of years, with only a few ever coming to their senses.

  13. I enjoyed the article and agree with most of it. When my players ask me about the different species in my game and it starts to get into the whole concept of morality, I simply pause the conversation and remind everyone it is a game. When you play the game of Risk, if you have the blue pegs and you kill your friend’s army who is playing with the red pegs, there is no racism. The whole point of the game of Risk is to wipe out all the other armies and conquer the world.

    Since D&D is a collaborative game amongst the players, the Players all play blue pegs and the DM plays the red pegs. Anything thrown against the players can be killed without remorse because it is a game. Like the author said, orcs are monsters (i.e. red pegs). Remember the origins of D&D is from wargaming – blue vs red armies. That’s it. Sure you can add layers of complexity, emotions, morality, etc to the game if that is your preference – but at its origins D&D is a game about Blue pegs killing Red pegs.

    You can play a whole D&D adventure by calling every foe the PCs meet a “Red Shirt”, give them all different stats and abilities (based on their MM equivalent), give them no description and it still works. Might not be that great an experience, but it is doable. The moment people start to move beyond the Blue peg vs Red peg concept for the game is when problems start showing up – interpretations creep in, accusations start to fly, real world politics interfere, Satanic panic ensues, etc.

    Anyway, that is just my two cents on this exhausting topic that is taking up way too much of everyone’s time and effort that could be better spent having fun with the hobby.

  14. Having been a D&D fan since 3e, I’ve never noticed any racism in its descriptions of nonhumans. The only problematic elements I’ve seen are its descriptions of human cultures, many of which are based on caricature. As time went on, though, things gots a lot better when it came to human cultures. There was also a movement to give many nonhumans multiple cultures. So, all in all, this whole “orcs are racist” thing surprised me a bit. I’m more used to seeing that in Tolkien discussions.

    I’m also a fan of generic systems, so I’m used to designing nonhuman species, many whom are wildly physiologically different than humans. I find the racism argument breaks down when you start to look past orcs and elves. Would these people seriously argue that a centaur should be given the same stats as a human? What about an intelligent slime? I feel like a lot people don’t really think of elves or orcs as nonhumans, rather they seem them as idealized humans they can project onto. Which is weird to me as a roleplayer who enjoys weirdness: they’d rather roleplay a beautiful and/or more perfect version of themselves than someone who’s just different like a human from a foreign culture or an actual alien/robot. But hey, I’ve accepted that that’s just what some people are into.

    I agree that having unambiguously evil enemy is very helpful in a game dedicated to combat. In games where you don’t have that it either becomes a game where combat is avoided at all costs or one where the party becomes sociopaths who grow “used to” killing people who beg for their lives and have families. The former is pretty niche while the latter is undesirable.

  15. I enjoyed the final address to Jeremy Crawford as I believe that Wizards, with Tasha’s Cauldron, has gone too far. Races – intended a la D&D – have always had their specificities and it makes no sense to water them down. Indeed, you are spot on with your example of the good-hearted vampire!

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